Memorizing with the Inner Ear

DSC_0023 (2)by Nathan Cornelius

In my ever-evolving journey towards becoming a professional musician, my current “day job” is working on ear-training skills with conservatory students. To succeed in ear-training class, students have to be able to write down a tune or some snippet of music they’ve never heard before, only by listening to it (a task formidable enough to inspire the half-joking moniker “fear-training”). I’ve noticed recently that remembering what the tune was often presents just as much difficulty for students as writing it down. For most musicians, memorization only follows a long period of working on the music, not only hearing it many times but also reading it many times, until it imprints itself on the brain as if by osmosis. Thus, I often find myself spending just as much time working with students on strategies for efficient memorization as on converting sound into notation.

This work got me thinking about the role of memory in composition. Psychologists believe that our capacity to imagine nonexistent objects and situations is fueled by our ability to recall, deconstruct, and recombine experiences we’ve already had, mixing and matching elements of real situations to create plausible non-real ones. I suspect many composers work by an analogous process, consciously or unconsciously  constructing their music out of musical objects they remember from elsewhere. Most musicians have some experience with memorizing what they play and (if they survived ear-training class) with memorizing what they hear as well. However, I’ve become convinced that another step beyond this is necessary to become a truly adept composer: While a good musician is able efficiently to memorize music they have heard, a good composer is able efficiently to memorize music they have not yet heard.

I believe creativity flows most naturally when the artist is playing, in the full sense of that word, whether improvising at your instrument, doodling on paper, or responding intuitively to another artist. When you stumble across something you like, you write it down, and the piece takes off from there. The more proficient you are as an improviser, the more well-defined, and far-reaching this process can be as a first stage of composition. This is one reason more composers have played the piano than any other instrument, as it can realize the greatest range of musical textures of any single instrument.

However, most composers will eventually desire to write music beyond the scope of their main instrument. Even on an instrument as versatile as the piano, there are many aspects of ensemble timbre, texture, and harmony that cannot be reduced enough to be played at all, let alone improvised, by one person. Thus, many composers’ creative process changes dramatically when they write for large ensemble. Instead of starting from spontaneous gestures, they begin to work much more carefully and systematically, pen on paper, making it difficult to keep the same freedom and fluidity as before. The music easily becomes a bit stale.

The solution, I think, is for the composer to keep improvising, not with their hands or their breath, but in their mind. If I try to freely imagine music for any instrument or ensemble purely by hearing it in my inner ear, I’m often surprised at the vitality and freshness of what I can come up with. The problem is, when I try to replay it so I can write it down, the whole thing falls apart in my mind. It seems that I am not able to capture the musical information I imagine with my unconscious mind clearly enough for my conscious mind to be able to retain or inspect it.  While this is frustrating, I’m convinced that the only way forward is simply to develop my faculties of imagination at a higher level so that I can both mentally “play” and “transcribe” my creations, first simple ones, then more complex.

But how can a composer go about acquiring this skill? It’s a complicated activity that can be approached from several angles. First of all, try to visualize the music you actually do hear. This means going beyond your required ear-training classes to apply these same skills to every piece you hear, from Beethoven symphonies to microtonal pieces, trying to identify what you’re listening to as specifically as possible and imagining what the score might look like. Second, you can “auralize” the music you actually can see, with the score (but no instrument!) in hand, imagining what it will sound like before you play it. I’ve found this process can be a very beneficial way of practicing repertoire, but it can also be extended to works for instruments you don’t play, then chamber pieces, and eventually, larger scores. Finally, when you are ready to try to imagine music you can’t physically hear or see, start with small, manageable tasks. Ask yourself to invent a phrase of melody without making any actual sound and then write it down immediately. Try to imagine a harmonic progression that modulates and then retrace your path from one tonality to another. Or try to picture a dense texture in your mind and then figure out what instruments it could consist of. Once you succeed at these little challenges, gradually put them together into more complex ones.

If this seems all but impossible at first, don’t give up. This skill does not come easily (and I’m far from attaining it myself). But when you think about it, neither does learning an instrument, singing in a choir, mastering solfege, or (of course!) composing. We pursue them as musicians not because they’re easy but because they’re worth it to be able to achieve our artistic goals. With enough determination and desire to succeed and a clear roadmap for the practice needed to get you there, I firmly believe this level of creative ability is within reach for anyone.


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